Repentance, Belief, and the Gospel
Jesus' words in Mark 1:15 come in the form of an urgent command: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." Not only does Christ come to announce the soon-coming Kingdom of God, in particular to those whom God calls (John 6:44), but also to prepare the elect for their spiritual responsibilities now and in the Kingdom. Notice, though, that this emphasis on repentance does not end with Christ's death. After His resurrection from the dead, but before His ascension to the Father, He tells His disciples:
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
Notice that following repentance is the remission of sins, which baptism signifies, being a symbolic dying to sin and resurrection to a new life (Romans 6:1-12). This is why on Pentecost, AD 31, Peter instructs the assembled crowd, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
Likewise, Paul teaches the men of Athens:
Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31; emphasis ours)
Repentance is a prerequisite to belief. What is repentance? Its basic meaning is "to change" or "to turn." Once a person hears the gospel and is convicted that his way of life is wrong, he must change his present behavior and "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8). Repentance is not merely feeling sorry or remorseful, but being so stricken in one's heart that one seeks the cleansing of baptism and begins to live according to God's standards - according to God's law. Remorse without a corresponding change in conduct is not repentance!
The fruits of repentance are visible actions - often called "works" - that show that a person has indeed changed. When John the Baptist preached repentance to prepare the way for Jesus' ministry, his audience asked him what they should do to repent. He answers: Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, do not steal, do not use one's authority to oppress, do not lie or accuse falsely, and be content with one's wages (Luke 3:10-14). In general, these actions are either obeying God's laws or showing love for one's neighbor.
Jesus says, "If you want to enter into [eternal] life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). Later, when requested to name the greatest commandments, Jesus answers, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart. . . .' And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:36-40). When we put all these things together, bearing fruits worthy of repentance is simply living as God does!
Believing the gospel is closely related to having faith. When one believes something, he has faith, trust, and confidence that it is true. This confidence leads him to begin to act in accordance with what he believes, and the result is obedience to it or following it. Notice how the apostle Paul shows this in Romans 10:8-10:
But what does [Scripture] say? "The word is near you, even in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.
Verse 10 provides the balance to verse 9. It is not enough just to confess Jesus verbally and believe in the resurrection as an intellectual exercise. Paul explains that heartfelt belief leads to righteousness, which is simply right doing or godly behavior (Psalm 119:172). Faith, then - living faith (II Corinthians 5:7) - is trusting God's Word and practicing it, whether in the face of hardship, sacrifice, the contrary opinions of friends and family, or even death. The author of Hebrews commends the "Heroes of Faith" to us for just these reasons (Hebrews 11).
Thus, Jesus' urgent command for us to repent and believe the gospel provides us with the negative and positive sides of a single, godly action. He tells us to rid ourselves of the evil we have been doing ("repent and . . . be baptized") and to begin doing what God expects of those to whom He has revealed His way of life ("believe"). This will lead to righteousness and salvation and - God promises! - entrance into His Kingdom (II Peter 1:2-11).
Next: Why Was Jesus Christ Crucified for Our Sins? (8/12)